Magazine article Gramophone

A Cycle of Vaughan Williams Symphonies from St Petersburg: Gennadi Rozhdestvensky's Symphony Cycle Is Vaughan Williams as You've Never Heard Him Before

Magazine article Gramophone

A Cycle of Vaughan Williams Symphonies from St Petersburg: Gennadi Rozhdestvensky's Symphony Cycle Is Vaughan Williams as You've Never Heard Him Before

Article excerpt

Smiling smugly to myself for dreaming up the headline 'Moscowpat music', the fact soon hit home that these riveting Vaughan Williams performances by the State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture were recorded not in Moscow but in the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Serves me right! Whether Gennadi Rozhdestvensky's 1988/89 run of broadcasts was Russia's first-ever experience of the complete Vaughan Williams symphonic canon I cannot say but I'm pretty sure that Melodiya's six-disc release of the cycle--issued as part of the label's 50th-anniversary celebrations--is the debut Russian disc coverage of this endlessly fascinating repertoire. And the performances are highly revealing, or at least most of them are. Any sign of cowpat has been well and truly concreted over: Rozhdestvensky makes this music sound urban, high-rise, occasionally sinister, and loving in a very human way. There is nothing in the local catalogue even remotely like it.

I initially wondered whether the exalted opening of the Sea Symphony (heard here at its St Petersburg premiere) was being proclaimed in Russian. Well, it isn't, but a little later you'll need to listen very closely to recognise Whitman's 'today a rude brief recitative, of ships sailing the seas ...' given that Boris Vasiliev's Russian accent is so strong. The performance is full of vigour (great low brass) and the choral singing is excellent. Sinfonia antartica also works exceedingly well, even though in this one case a lack of dynamic range tends to work against the music's impact. Great timpani and tam-tam at around 7'00" into the 'Landscape' but the organ lacks 'welly'.

Rozhdestvensky focuses the London Symphony's wide range of moods with an acute ear. Note how he rushes at the pivotal five-note figure that serves as a leitmotif in the first movement and how sensitively he shapes the succeeding Lento. The 'nocturnal' Scherzo sounds redolent of Petrushka; and while the Third and Fifth Symphonies are less appreciatively sensuous than they are under, say, Andre Previn, you can sense that Rozhdestvensky is relishing their rich harmonic language.

Most impressive are those two harrowing symphonic dramas, the Fourth and the Sixth. …

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